NASA details Ames cuts

"NASA Intelligent Systems Project"

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Officials at NASA’s Ames Research Center, responsible for developing technology behind one of the world’s top supercomputers, will eliminate up to 25 percent of their supercomputing and space exploration robotics employees, they said.

NASA officials hope some of the affected employees accept buyouts, which were announced last week. Ames officials, which also developed technology for the Mars rovers, are offering all but 70 of their 1, 400 federal employees a buyout package with a federally mandated cap of $25,000. NASA expects 10 percent of its 70 supercomputing workers and 10 percent of 100 robotics workers to take the buyouts.

Whether through buyouts, layoffs or other means, Ames officials ultimately expect to slash 15 to 20 jobs in supercomputing and 20 to 25 people in robotics within a year and a half, said Eugene Tu, Ames’ deputy director for the exploration technology directorate.

If NASA officials cannot decrease the number of employees at Ames, based in Mountain View, Calif., future plans call for reassignments to other functions or centers, followed by reductions in workforce. “There is always that possibility out there that the agency will have to take some kind of involuntary separation,” Tu said.

The move marks the second proposed cutback in recent months for federal supercomputing efforts. Although the House in November approved a bill designed to establish a research and development program within the Energy Department to develop new computing capabilities, Energy’s proposed 2006 budget released last month largely ignores supercomputing.

Ames' Silicon Graphics-built Columbia supercomputer, which has hit processing speeds of 51.87 teraflops, is ranked second on the Top 500 list.

Union officials say they support the future of NASA supercomputing. “As far as I know, there’s not a whole lot of supercomputing going on at other centers,” said Chris Knight, vice president for negotiations at Ames Federal Employees Union and a Computational Sciences Division employee. “The buyout is the tip of the spear of what’s really coming,” he said.

Late last year, NASA eliminated 50 out of 120 supercomputing contractors, Tu said.

Despite cuts, Ames officials will retain specialists in core areas, including supercomputing and outer space robotics. “We have a bit larger capability at Ames than we predict the agency will need in the future, so we’re downsizing,” Tu said. At the same time, “we’re trying to be very careful not to get out of the information technology business and try to make sure that the core areas that we’ve identified are sized correctly to meet current and future agency needs.”

Officials have said that robotics, or the Intelligent Systems Project, will be an important part of NASA’s new Mars and moon exploration mission.

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